Bypassing TCI cable's `system' of outages

April 14, 2001|By Gregory Kane

I LOVE THIS town and will probably remain here the rest of my days. But in some ways, my beloved Baltimore has failed me. Take the area of cable television, for instance.

Let's go back a year and a few months, to January 2000. America's No. 1 religious event, the Super Bowl, was playing on network television. Super Bowl XXXIV pitted the Tennessee Titans against the Los Angeles Rams, who play out of St. Louis these days.

It was the waning seconds of the game. The Titans trailed by seven points but had the ball. They were driving toward the L.A./St. Louis goal line. Titans' quarterback Steve McNair fired a pass to a receiver with five seconds left and then ...

Nothing, if you were watching the game on TCI's cable "system," which then had a reputation for going out in a thunderstorm, a light rain or a stiff breeze. TCI losing its picture was nothing new. Long-suffering TCI subscribers were used to it way before Super Bowl XXXIV. We just figured on Super Bowl Sunday, the company would mind its P's and Q's and see to it that all its customers could see the entire game.

We figured wrong. Oh, the company was all apologies afterward, offering the 2,000 subscribers affected one day of free cable and two coupons for a free pay-per-view movie as compensation. But some customers learned a very valuable lesson.

Fast forward to March 2001. The University of Maryland's basketball team, that bunch of awesome, fearsome, carnivorous turtles, was about to start a game in which it would feast away on Stanford in the regional championship of the NCAA tournament. Maryland fans gathered in bars all over downtown Baltimore to view a game that would see Maryland win and move on to the school's first Final Four appearance ever.

TCI wasn't quite up to the task however, as again power was lost to some 3,000 subscribers for 75 minutes in downtown Baltimore. The Sun did a front-page story on the blackout, much to the displeasure of Coles Ruff, the general manager at TCI.

"The only reason the story got that kind of front-page play is because your newsroom was out," Ruff said yesterday. "It was really an unfair representation. We measure our reliability by how much up time we have. We're up 99.995 percent of the time." TCI has 115,000 customers, Ruff said. From a strictly mathematical standpoint, he may have a point. The March 24 outage affected only 2.6 percent of TCI's customers.

No blackout happened at my house, and wouldn't have if the entire TCI system had crashed. I was quite ready for TCI this time.

I dumped them.

Yep. Back around October or November of last year, I gave TCI the boot. I went with a DIRECTV satellite system. Yeah, it cost me some bucks, as Ruff was quick to remind me.

"You can't have satellite TV everywhere," he said. "You have to be in an area where it's accessible." It was then that I confessed that I had to foot the expense of cutting down a tree in my back yard so I could receive the signal.

"See, there you go," Ruff said. "You have to put the value of cutting down that tree in the cost of your television service." What was the cost of cutting down the tree? Not cheap.

But for my total viewing pleasure, TCI had to go. I didn't have the PAX channel with TCI. I do with DIRECTV. It's the only place where I can watch reruns of one of my favorite television westerns: Bonanza. (I've got a serious Hoss Cartwright thing going on, and still insist his hat should be on display in the Smithsonian Institution. But that's another column.)

I get the Biography Channel, which I didn't have with TCI. I get an extra cartoon channel, called Boomerang, where I can watch reruns of the Smurfs. (Look, you get your television entertainment your way, I'll get mine my way.) I also get TVLand, another station offering vintage television shows. TCI offered it, but only as part of its "digital" package, which means they charged city residents extra money for a channel that Comcast offered as part of its expanded basic package.

And -- goody goody gumdrops! -- best of all, DIRECTV offers a wealth of sports channels. Imagine my delight when I tuned to one of them and caught collegiate wrestling on the air. I got to watch Minnesota, which just won its first NCAA championship, win a dual meet against Michigan and an All-Star meet from Lancaster, Pa., that featured some of the country's top grapplers.

TCI's idea of wrestling fare is that foolishness seen in the WCW and WWF, and they'll charge you a pretty penny to watch "pro wrestling" pay-per-view events. For fans of pure wrestling, DIRECTV might be the ticket.

A few caveats are in order. You do have to pay for the satellite box, satellite dish and installation with a DIRECTV system. The amount is not small. While DIRECTV gets ABC, CBS, NBC and the Fox networks, they don't get the WB and UPN networks. Those of you who are used to watching channels 24 and 54 here in Baltimore might not want DIRECTV.

What I gained with DIRECTV -- the PAX channel, Biography, Boomerang and access to my beloved amateur wrestling -- far outweighed the loss of the UPN and WB networks. Ruff said TCI still offers UPN and WB, and that his company is improving so that in the future they will be able to offer extra channels like PAX, Biography and Boomerang.

I suppose I could have waited, but I reckon I just heard Hoss Cartwright's hat calling out to me: "Get DIRECTV."

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